As more and more people make the transition back into the office after working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, this blog post will focus on Title I of The Americans with Disabilities Act – specifically reasonable accommodations in the workplace and what is required, and how COVID-19 has changed the landscape of reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
What are Reasonable Accommodations?
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from being denied a job or having their job terminated so long as they are able to perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodations.
A reasonable accommodation is any change or adjustment to a job or work environment that permits a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the job application process, to perform the essential functions of a job, or to enjoy benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by employees without disabilities.
For example, reasonable accommodation may include:
• acquiring or modifying equipment or devices
• job restructuring
• part-time or modified work schedules
• reassignment to a vacant position
• adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies
• providing readers and interpreters
• making the workplace readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities
It is a violation of the ADA to fail to provide reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of a qualified individual with a disability, unless to do so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of your business. Undue hardship means that the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense.
Often, when the employee with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation, the employee may suggest a reasonable accommodation based upon her own life or work experience, or the appropriate accommodation is obvious. If the appropriate accommodation is not readily apparent, an employer must make a reasonable effort to identify one. The best way for an employer to accomplish this is to consult informally with the employee about potential accommodations that would enable the individual to participate in the application process or perform the essential functions of the job.
Are all employers covered under the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act covers all employers who have fifteen (15) or more employees; state and government employers, labor organizations, labor management committees, and employment agencies.
How do you know who receives employment protections under the ADA?
Under the ADA, a person has a disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects individuals who have a record of a substantially limiting impairment, and people who are regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment.
Therefore, for an employee to be protected under the ADA, they must have, have a record of, or be regarded as having a substantial impairment. A substantial impairment is one that significantly limits or restricts a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, breathing, performing manual tasks, walking, caring for oneself, learning or working.
The employee must also be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, in order to be protected by the ADA. This means that the applicant or employee must:
• Satisfy job requirements for educational background, employment experience, skills, licenses, and any other qualification standards that are job related; and
• Be able to perform tasks essential to the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.
How has COVID-19 Impacted Reasonable Accommodations?
In September 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided some guidance confirming that employers are not required to make accommodations for employees who prefer to work remotely simply because they are worried that they, or a family member, might contract COVID-19. If, however, an employee’s reluctance or inability to return to the workplace is based on an underlying disability, then working from home would be a reasonable accommodation under The Americans with Disabilities Act.
Prior to the pandemic, the question of whether working remotely could be a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA was the subject of debate. The EEOC and the courts generally agreed that for an employee whose job required “face-to-face interaction and coordination of work with other employees,” “in-person interaction with outside colleagues, clients, or customers,” and/or “immediate access to documents or other information located only in the workplace,” working from home would not be considered a reasonable accommodation.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of how business is done. Many companies successfully shifted to working from home during the pandemic, which, in turn, altered perceptions of what jobs truly require face-to-face interaction with colleagues, customers, or clients. Prior to the pandemic, it was often difficult for employers to see how an employee working from home could maintain productivity. However, as millions of people working from home during the pandemic have shown, working from home can be a feasible option – one that could potentially allow for greater recruitment and retention of more employees with disabilities.
While working from home is not desirable or necessary for everyone with a disability – reasonable accommodations must take each individual and their needs into consideration, many individuals with a disability may prefer to work in-office – working from home provides greater access to many individuals and has shown itself to be a feasible reasonable accommodation for many employers and employees alike.
COVID-19 has changed the perception of the workplace and productivity, and has proven that you don’t need to be in an office space to be able get the job done. While working from home may not be a feasible accommodation for certain positions and places of employment, it is something to be taken into consideration, especially as a reasonable accommodation related to disability. If you are interested in learning more about reasonable accommodations, accessibility in employment, and legal protections in the workplace during COVID-19, please check out the resources below.
Interested in learning more?
The Ability Center and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) put together this resource on legal protections in the workplace during COVID-19.
More Employment Accessibility and Accommodation Resources
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Job Accommodation Network (JAN)